Kelly Clarkson and the Economics of Pop

Breakaway.jpg
And into the sun

It's maybe the music industry's oldest and most tiresome archetypal story: the fearless maverick artist who takes on the fusty, anonymous suits at the record label, the guys who can't see anything beyond the bottom line. The thing no one ever seems to remember about this story is that the fusty, anonymous suits tend to be right as often as not. When artists are allowed complete free reign to do whatever they want, they're that much more likely to churn out impenetrable wankery like the Idlewild sountrack, and that tends to turn out badly for the artists, the record labels, and most of all the people who actually buy records. Record labels usually want artists to make catchy, immediate music that will appeal to large numbers of people, and most of the time, that's also what I want. If you're being honest with yourself, it's probably what you want, too. Record labels might screw artists out of money and sue senior citizens when their grandkids illegally download music on their computers, but they aren't always forces for evil, and their input probably helps more records than it hurts. Still, every once in a while, a record label will get into a semi-public fight with an artist and come off looking so ridiculously stupid that you can't imagine how the people at the top manage to keep their jobs. Case in point: why would a label exec be dumb enough to attempt to scrap a Kelly Clarkson album?

Kelly Clarkson just won her recent tiff with Sony BMG, so maybe cooler heads prevailed. By all accounts, her upcoming My December is the album she wanted to make, and she even succeeded in getting its release date pushed up. Still, the very idea that the tiff happened in the first place is a bit too ridiculous to contemplate. Here's the story: apparently legendary industry big dog Clive Davis played "Never Again," Clarkson's vengefully rocked-up new single, at some industry meetings and asked the assembled functionaries whether they thought it sounded like a #1 single. Evidently, it didn't sound like a #1 to Davis, and he's got a lot wrapped up in this next Clarkson album. In a time when nobody's buying music, those few artists who actually do sell records become extremely precious commodities, and Clarkson moved five million copies of Breakaway, her last album. Still, you'd think that those five million records sold would be reason enough to give Clarkson the benefit of the doubt. Thankful, the decent-enough MOR-teenpop album that Clarkson released after winning the first American Idol, sold two million copies, but she only really exploded when she dropped a single that, as many critics have pointed out, sounded something like Interpol. Admittedly, "Since U Been Gone" only sounded like Interpol if Interpol gave a shit and had a female singer who could actually sing, but this still wasn't a sure bet. Much of Breakaway had a similarly tense charge to it, and if this article is to be believed, Clarkson had to fight her label to make that album, too. Thus far, Clarkson's instincts have served both her and Sony well.

And maybe I'm full of shit here, but it seems to me that Clarkson's pop instincts might make more sense in 2007 than those of Clive Davis. Davis might've signed Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd and Whitney Houston and Air Supply and Ace of Base, but that pedigree means absolutely nothing in a climate as mysterious and perilous as the one we see today. Davis is used to dealing with glamorous global superstars, and with a few exceptions (Beyonce, Justin Timberlake), glamorous global superstars barely exist anymore, at least as bankable commodities. If you look at the albums that've sold well lately (Daughtry, Rascal Flatts, High School Musical), you see a whole lot of niche-market staples with little to no crossover potential. (I have no idea where Akon falls on this map. His current run of omnipresence might last, or he might turn out to be the new Shaggy. We won't know for a while.) Clarkson may look something like a glamorous global superstar, but she actually relies on a casual approachability that works against glamor in interesting ways. And she's done better both commercially and artistically than any other American Idol winner because thus far she's been the only one to smash out of the two-dimensional characterizations that the show imposes on all its contestants. Maybe her general fearlessness has led her to some dubious ideas, like when she allowed Jeff Beck to noodle away behind her when she sang on the Idol Gives Back special a few weeks ago. But it's not like she's trying to make a Black Dice album or something. She seems to see something that Clive Davis doesn't: there's a lot of room in the pop world for a wronged-everywoman archetype, and the hugely, icily crunchy rock of "Never Again" is a really powerful way of conveying that archetype. My December might not sell another five million copies, but it's starting to look like no album will ever sell five million copies again. "Never Again," meanwhile, might not have been a #1 single, but it did manage to make it into Billboard's top ten. Clive Davis should either rethink the changing economics of pop or get his old ass replaced.

Voice review: Mikael Wood on Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway


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